For many jazz historians, “Latin jazz” was just jazz for a long time. It used the usual instruments that jazz has leaned on since its invention such as the voice, drums the trombone and more. But Latin jazz as we know it today is personified by percussion. Afro-Puerto Rican and Afro-Cuban artists created and influenced the sound we consider Latin jazz today. They put the islands in jazz.
Percussion instruments are how Latin jazz mixes its Latin and African roots to create a sound that has come to represent the region. Duke Ellington’s version of “Caravan” was written Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol and is one of the most popular jazz songs and is considered a jazz standard. If you watched 2014’s jazz film “Whiplash,” you couldn’t have missed the song in the film.
Five percussion instruments used in Latin Jazz
A Clave is an instrument made up of a pair of cigar-sized solid wood sticks. They are Cuban in their origin and are usually played by cupping one clave tightly in one hand and hitting it with the other clave.
Played with the palms, conga drums are an unmissable part of Latin jazz. They ground the songs. There’s usually more than one conga drum being played. To be exact, there are three: the small “Quinta” conga, the middle-sized conga and the large “Tumbba” conga drum. The “Quinto” conga drum is used for solos while the two others grease the base rhythms.
The maracas is an instrument mostly native to the Carribean. It is typically made from emptied calabash gourd shells, with dried seeds left inside. When the maracas are shaken, the seeds create the percussion sound. Maracas can also be made from dried and stitched leather stitched together. Maracas are also played in pairs.
In Bra Hugh’s “Grazin’ in the Grass” instrumental, a cowbell is the first thing you hear. It plays a significant role throughout the song. Cowbells are a popular instrument in Latin jazz. They’re played with a stick and the key is to hit different parts of the instrument.
Like the macaras, the original cabasa instrument was made from a hollowed out gourd. It was then fitted with a net of beads. There is also a metal version where a network of wires is wrapped around a metal cylinder then beaded. The latter version of the cabasa is a mainstay in Latin jazz.